The Grow Room, K’ Road and the loss of Auckland’s creative spaces

This weekend, The Golden Dawn will close its doors forever. Last month, The Kings Arms did the same. In the middle of this turning point for Auckland music venues, The Grow Room – a multi-faceted DIY creative space – struggles to find a home. Joel Thomas talks to its core members about the uncertain future of creative spaces in Auckland City.

The Grow Room is an Auckland community of creatives with a strong DIY ethos. Holding regular popup stores, working with musicians, throwing impromptu gigs, hosting gallery shows, and supporting artists – that only scratches the surface of what they do.

It started out with casual jams in a flat garage with co-founders Ryan Sheffield, Ethan King, and some mates who began to realise the potential of a shared creative space. “The garage was kind of like the prototype,” King told me as w sat with core Grow Room members Thomas ‘Bridge’ Shoebridge, Jordyn Hall, and her and King’s newborn son Ra (who of course, didn’t talk, but is worth mentioning for being so cute). We were in Verona on a hot December afternoon last year, before King started his shift.

Though not a music venue, Verona’s place in Auckland’s music culture is important. Situated in the busiest block of K’ Road, it is the venue romanticised in Elemeno P’s absolute banger ‘Verona’. It’s also the present and past employer of plenty of musicians trying to survive in Auckland, including The Grow Room’s King and Sheffield, and former Rubicon member and current St Kevins Arcade owner Paul Reid (apparently he washed dishes there, but more on him later), so it was a pretty fitting place to chat.

Ryan Sheffield performing at Whammy! (PHOTO: Locapinay)

In early 2015, after realising the potential of shared creative spaces, King and Sheffield found a space just next door in St Kevins Arcade and rented it from former owner Murray Rose for $200 a week, a cost they split between themselves. It was “very homely and welcoming,” according to Bridge, and it began to attract more people as friends brought other friends in. It kept growing as the collective’s music expanded from making beats and hip-hop music to band stuff and even some free jazz. The platforms explored by the group also grew to include videography, photography, poetry, and other arts. “We’ve got so many arms of creativity, it’s not just music anymore,” Bridge says. “It’s a way of helping build each other up through community.”

“Videos are a big part of it,” King adds. “It’s about taking it to a wider audience, exposing different cats and what they do.”

The two emphasise how important having their own space was for the people involved. “It’s keeping that hip-hop thing alive through physicality and community,” King says. “That was a big thing in our initial stage. Like, we’re a physical place. Whereas before, everyone was just on SoundCloud and stuff. And, even though cats lived really close to each other, they might not see or collaborate with anyone in person. You progress a lot more when you’re in each other’s faces and dealing with the issues that arise as they come, instead of just being over the internet or whatever.”

The Grow Room’s St Kevins Arcade Space (PHOTO: Locapinay)

Though things were going well for the group, the space was jeopardised when Paul Reid bought the arcade in June 2015. “He started doing it up slowly,” King says. “He came to us and said the rent’s gonna double to $420 and we could sign a three-year lease or we could just continue where we were, month by month.” The rise in rent meant The Grow Room’s situation had to change. King and Sheffield began sharing the costs with other core members of the collective. Meanwhile, the tenants in the arcade began to change. The space became more professional, “some young tech startup cats” entered the space and organisations like local radio station The Plug (formerly KFM) left. Also on the outs: a karaoke brothel in the room next to them called Club White. “They [the developers] got rid of them and there was like a fight in the foyer with like syringes and shit.”

After its supposed cleansing, the arcade was self-described as “A temple of creativity. Auckland’s cultural capital,” but Bridge says the arcade is “more of a commercial creative environment. Instead of doing music for music, it became jingles for ads.” That’s not to say there aren’t some great spaces in the arcade. For instance, independent art/design space Monster Valley set up a gallery there (temporarily closed due to rain damage), Tart Bakery makes amazing vegan pies and Whammy! and Wine Cellar are still humming along with bookings locked in months ahead. The issue is that the arcade was already a temple of creativity before people were kicked out – and it was marketed to new tenants as such.

“We were the creatives in that space,” King says. “And how [Reid] dealt with us showed the truth behind that. It was just a marketing ploy. It was just like, he didn’t like the look of us. Like these young graphic designer dudes moved across the hall and they would drink heaps and throw their beer bottles in the gutter and we would get emails about it just because we were young musicians. Around the time we got kicked out, Paul Reid was showing people around in suits and stuff. I was just walking around in my slippers and shit and they were just looking at me weird, and like a week later, we got the message from the property manager, who was a really nice guy, and he told us that Paul Reid was kicking us out and he was resigning because of it. They were kicking all of these people out and we were the last straw for him because he really liked what we did.”

King tells me that Paul Reid said they were being kicked out because the arcade needed the space for storage. (I have approached Reid, as well as Denise Kyne, the operations manager of The Icon Group, Reid’s ‘Commercial Add Value Specialist’ company, and neither responded with comments.)

The Grow Room’s Saint Kevins Arcade Space (PHOTO: Locapinay)

Bridge believes they were respectful and weren’t kicked out for their behaviour. “We were never missing rent, we wouldn’t make noise during the day. That’s how gentrification happens – you start out with a neighbourhood, and you have people doing creative things in that neighbourhood because it’s important for us to be there, and that brings a certain type of mana, or whatever you choose to call it, and that gets cast aside and removed. They’ll keep the cool factor or whatever. That’s always how it happens.”

And this has raised some more issues around the work that Grow Room is doing, because they feel such a connection to the city and in particular, K’ Road, they want to keep existing along those plains. But every street show they put on, every pop-up store that goes up, indirectly benefits the businesses of developers like Reid by raising the value of those spaces, almost perpetuating the growth of these businesses.

“It’s like anything we do in the street, we raise the value,” King says. “Unless we’re doing some real disgusting shit, which is maybe what we need to do.” As he sees it, there are two kinds of gentrifier: active and passive. “Like Murray Rose [the arcade’s former owner], he was gentrifying as well, in a passive way. Because, he just bought the building, and didn’t do anything to it, and then sold it later for more because the street was raising in value from people doing creative things. And then Paul Reid bought it because of that. But he’d seen that he could accelerate that process, and he had no shame in that.”

I don’t know if you can throw morality around in a situation like this, but I do know that this active gentrification (or ‘development’) is damaging communities in a way that’s being directly felt. An incredible number of Auckland musicians from various genres and scenes have a romance with K’ Road, but when should you let it go? When should you just uproot and find a new place to bury yourself? This is much harder than it may seem when the music coming out of The Grow Room and other K’ Road-based musicians have actively tried to form a unique sound around their connection to the street. “It’s like roots music. Because you recognise where you’re from and that’s like, deeply impactful. You can’t separate us from K’ Road or us from Auckland City. That’s part of it,” Bridge says.

King: “At the end of the day, we might be out priced out, but it’s the experiences we create in the meantime, it’s the stuff that we create that’ll be worth it. It’s this little pocket in time, it happens everywhere in the world, these little pockets of time in between where things happen. Like, now is that time. I don’t know when it’s gonna finish when we’re gonna have to leave, but we’ll keep on doing it for as long as we can.”

Bridge: “This is the thing. You have people who own the street who don’t recognise what a creative space actually means for the city at large and so they’ll happily get rid of it, and at the end of the day, you’re left with a huge gap of space in which to do creative things. You don’t have spaces where creative things can happen in, so how do you expect the city to continue popping off like that. Like, how is your neighbourhood going to be cool if you don’t have people doing things? I’m all for affordable housing in the city, and that will come with more people moving in but like, I don’t know. There need to be ways to sort of maintaining this balance between creative spaces and things like that.”

“It’s like an important faculty,” King says. “Like a toilet or something. Like you’ve got to have a toilet per every certain amount of people, you should have like a bar or a space or something where people can enjoy themselves and live, and explore, you know? It’s like with the venues and stuff shutting down. There’s gonna be heaps of people here, and heaps of houses and apartments and stuff, but the quality of life is gonna be crap.”

Hans. performing in Saint Kevins Arcade (PHOTO: Locapinay)

Despite Verona getting noisier and K’ Road getting busier as the afternoon pushed on, this part of the conversation was definitely the easiest to hear from my shitty laptop recording. There is clarity and urgency in their voices.

“Auckland’s got so much potential,” Bridge says. “We are so lucky, like, it’s the most beautiful city in the world and there are so many incredibly talented people and it could be a world-class city but-”

“It’s like, when capitalism runs rampant, you know?” King cuts him off. “It’s just gonna get smaller and tighter as housing goes up and up and up. There’s no regulation on how much of this you can have here and it’s like, keeping these creative spaces in parks and stuff.”

I ask if they think legislation should be introduced to help protect creative areas from gentrification.

“I think there needs to be funding available for spaces, not just projects,” King says. “So you want to see a Creative New Zealand sort of thing where you can be like, ‘yo, I’ve got this space, and it’s going to foster this sort of thing.’”

“Yeah,” says Bridge, “because CNZ does amazing work. I guess there probably needs to be some sort of crossover with that and like, town planning.” He later adds that he’s not implying there is no funding for spaces or organisations, because there is – the problem is the lack of awareness surrounding what’s available.

Talk moves to urban development issues like noise control (a problem that venues are increasingly facing) and how a “guy that lived upstairs” kept calling noise control on Neck of the Woods and some other bars in the area, highlighting the issue of one person being able to shut venues down, despite knowing they would be moving into noisy spots.

Bridge says people will just leave the city if they can’t go to shows anymore. “People have always been leaving, man,” King says. “The homies are always like ‘I’m going to Berlin’. Everyone’s got this like, ‘I want to get out’ mentality. It’s toxic, you know… Because like, if you’re here then you should be working on this place and make this place where you want it to be instead of moving somewhere else instead of moving somewhere else. This is our little patch, this is our culture, this is where our music and stuff will flourish and where we will have the most relatable audience.”

“It’s not like you have to go overseas to reach people overseas now,” Bridge adds. “So it’s like, why not just look after your community and your own environment and like, make it bomb?”

I ask what they feel could be done to make Auckland a more exciting place and stop people from cruising to Berlin or Melbourne. “Throw art shows and shit,” King shoots back. “There are so many like, random vacant lots and stuff around the place… Make it known that it doesn’t have to be in a bar, so when all the bars go you can still do stuff. Actively seek that out.”

The Grow Room’s Samoa House Space (PHOTO: Locapinay)

After they were evicted from St Kevins Arcade in June 2016, the Grow Room took up residence in Samoa House, a space run by the Samoan Government that’s also on K’ Road, but the Ponsonby Road end. Bridge tells me their landlords were “good people.” They resided there until late November 2017, when they decided to take a different course. “Access was a huge one,” Bridge explains. “The fact that we used to have this like, effectively open door policy, but we couldn’t have that there. So it meant that people couldn’t just turn up and be face to face. We didn’t have fresh air. Like we definitely gave it a good shot to tried to make it very homely.”

“And it was expensive too,” King adds. “We were just like, struggling to pay the rent all the time. And that kind of took away from the community and we weren’t focusing on the things that we wanted to do or focusing on what we needed to do… Money kind of made it ugly.” They told me they’re taking their time to find a space, ideally still on K’ Road. “We’re trying to brainstorm ways to get into a space and pay less… We don’t take much. We’re just a sound system and a desk. That’s all we need. That’s all the Grow Room is besides the people.”

I don’t want to say that gentrification hasn’t already happened to K’ Road, that the arrival of middle-class arts students wasn’t a wave of gentrification that affected previous generations of businesses and culture. The “creative class” has pushed out a large number of businesses and families, as in Ponsonby and Grey Lynn. As Paula Morris puts it, “my students complain about the gentrification of K’ Road: ‘It must be stopped’, they say — en route from an art gallery opening to a poetry reading.”

This is a street with incredible history, named after the first arrival of Māori in Aotearoa, a space that has since been colonised, gentrified, lost value when new motorways arrived, gentrified, and gentrified again. “When I lived in St Kevin’s Arcade in the late-90s, we pushed out sex toy shops that probably hated us, then we were pushed out by bars and creative spaces…” The Spinoff’s music editor Henry Oliver told me in the course of editing this story.

Gentrification is an ongoing cycle in a world that’s always going through change, but despite the constant liminality of the space, there’s something unsettling and sad about arts communities being abused by developers and then pushed out of places where they thrive. This is a city with extremely fast growth and the incredible potential to have powerful arts communities that shake the world, change mindsets, and attract international attention. Why is it then, that our creative communities are struggling when they should be growing?


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